CHAPEL HILL — Town Council candidate Gary Kahn says he learned about politics by watching the best.
Kahn, 57, is one of nine candidates bidding for four Chapel Hill Town Council seats. Early voting begins Thursday; the general election is Nov. 5.
In his native Flushing, Queens, N.Y., Kahn lived just 10 minutes from Shea Stadium in a neighborhood of political heavyweights – former Gov. Mario Cuomo, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, multimillionaire Donald Trump – and intense debates, he said. He also worked as a political fundraiser, rubbing elbows with influential people, from Vice President Joe Biden (then a senator) to Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.
New York politics are more confrontational than N.C. politics, but it’s still friendly, he said. Kahn is not known for holding back when he has something to say, most recently countering residents’ complaints at a community meeting that they weren’t being heard.
“Basically, you can be aggressive and attack people but in a nice sort of way that avoids all that ... mudslinging,” he said. “Just bring up a few points, informing what the issues are and being nice about it.”
About three years ago, Kahn moved to Chapel Hill to be near a friend. He had just lost his mother – his father died a few years earlier – and he found here all the good things he enjoyed about Flushing, he said.
“I needed a sense of a real community that cared about you and had a willingness to talk to you, whether they really were interested or not, which I wasn’t getting in New York,” he said.
A vocal figure
The Southern Village resident has since become a regular figure at Town Council meetings and special events. He works as a contract retail merchandiser, responsible for relocating products within stores so they are more likely to sell.
Although he sought appointment earlier this year to former council member Penny Rich’s vacant seat, this is Kahn’s first official campaign. He was inspired by council member Matt Czajkowski’s challenge last year that the town’s southern residents should get involved, he said.
“I feel like I can offer more to the town than just being a member of an advisory board,” Kahn said.
The U.S. 15-501 South corridor is under pressure to change, with a hotel proposed for the rim of Southern Village and the Obey Creek project under consideration across the street. Chatham County’s new Walmart is less than two miles south.
Kahn said southern residents aren’t the only ones wrestling with traffic, growth and density. The solution takes transportation connectivity and balance, and while neighbors might not get everything they want, they should have a voice in the planning, he said.
“That’s why we have all these committees right now, to listen to the community and hear what they want,” he said.
Downtown can handle taller buildings, while other areas of town should only have two to three or a maximum of five stories, he said.
The town also should assume more responsibility for affordable housing, he said. A DHIC Inc. plan to build family and senior adult housing on town-owned land off Legion Road is a good step in the right direction, he said. The town could sell its land to developers in return for affordable-housing projects, or pay for future projects through public debt or savings, he said.
If the council worked from a line-item budget each year, it might be easier to find the savings, he said.
When he’s not talking politics, Kahn unwinds by listening to music, going out with friends from his MeetUp group or catching a New York Mets or Giants game on television. He might watch the Jets if they’re on, but he’s not really a fan, he said.
“I would be more upset if the Giants lost than I would if the Jets won or lost,” he said.